Greetings all. I am currently gearing up to my weekend away at Crime Story UK, a crime writing conference in Newcastle from tomorrow. Polishing my magnifying glass and dusting off my deer stalker! You can follow me on Twitter @JexShinigami and/or like my Facebook Page for updates/information on the weekend.
In the mean time, as promised, as I did not write a new piece of Flash Fiction to share last week as is my usual fortnightly tradition, here is a brand new short story. It’s called Showtime and is dystopian SciFi…about a circus.
I had a lot of help working on this, adding polish and refining the story, which I am most grateful for. I’d particularly like to thank blogger, writer and dilettante Helena Hann-Basquait for her feedback and agreement to make a cameo appearence in the story.
I hope you enjoy. I have also included the track that inspired the initial idea to set the tone and for your listening pleasure.
“You want to explain to me what the hell Helena’s problem is?”
“Maybe the fact that you’re calling her ‘Helena’?”
“The fuck am I calling her The Mistrix. This over-the-top theatrical stuff should be for the punters only.”
“Jesus, Grave,” Kirstoff looked up from the longknife he was cleaning. “What’s crawled up your ass tonight?”
Grave slammed the trailer door behind him. When it bounced open he slammed it again and held it shut until the magnet lock took. “See? This whole setup’s a joke.”
“Get Bruce to fix the door if it bothers you that much.”
“It’s not the damn door.”
“What is it, then?”
“That little ‘talk’ Helena wanted to have with me after the show?”
“We’re not dangerous enough, apparently. She wants us to put in a countdown.”
“A countdown to what?”
Grave sighed and threw himself on the patched couch. “To the nulgrav switching off. The fight has to be done by the end of the countdown or we’re smeared across the set.”
“Ok, we could do that.”
“Oh, that’s not the best bit.”
Grave rubbed his face. “We don’t get to know how long the countdown will be for until we get out there.”
“Fuck it all,” Grave leant forward, clutching his hair. “Screw her. I mean, really. Not dangerous enough? You nearly took my arm off tonight.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Kirstoff said, running his oil cloth down his blade again.
Grave shook his head, rubbing the bandage. “It’s fine, medic glued it up in a second, it’s not a problem. But where does she get off with this crap?”
Kirstoff shrugged and rose to stash the knife in a locker under the couch. “She’s thinks nulgrav takes the danger away.”
“Ok, so we’re not going to fall and smear our brains across the ring like the trapeze or necrobats, but surely the sharpened knives and live ammunition make up for it? The Fools don’t even use weapons and she says we lack edge?”
Kirstoff went to the refrigeration unit and pulled out two bottles. “The Games always want nulgrav performers if you want out.”
“They do background checks.”
Kirstoff held up his bottle with a sour grin. “To doing something you love for no pay, a shitty trailer and a ringmaster that likes bile and bones.”
Grave clinked his bottle to his partner’s. “I wouldn’t leave you anyway, you old sod. She’d probably have you put down.”
“Steady,” Kirstoff said.
Grave took a swig and scowled at the bottle. “Energy drink? Where’s the beer?”
“If you think I’m driving the whole way to Metropiline on my own you can think again, lad. And don’t even begin to think about taking any of that either,” he continued as Grave pulled a tin from his pocket.
“Aw, come on, man. ‘Shit’ doesn’t even begin to cover today.”
“So, suck it up. No Bliss before driving.”
Grave muttered and shoved the tin back in his pocket and tried to make himself relax. He tapped the tin again, aching for a dab, but Kristoff glared. He sighed and tried to stretch the aches away. “I wish you’d let me tell her, you know. About what we really think. She asks me in for these talks. Don’t you think she might listen?”
“She asks you in for the talks because she’s hoping you’ll give her an excuse to make our act the next DeathCut.”
“Hey,” Grave sat up. “Not fair.”
“It’s right there in the contract. Insubordination is instant dismissal. And she’d give anything to get rid of nulgrav performers.”
“Audiences want nulgrav, I don’t care what artistic notions of hers are being offended.”
“Well you should. Are we locked down?”
Grave sighed and leaned back again, glaring at the trailer ceiling. “I locked the trunk earlier. We should be fine if that door holds.”
“I’m serious, you know Grave,” Kristoff said as he took the empty bottles to the disposal. “You don’t want to rub her up the wrong way.”
“I promise I won’t get us fired,” Grave muttered as he dropped himself into the passenger seat.
“It’s not getting fired I’m worried about,” Kristoff murmured as he brushed past Grave to strap himself into the driving seat. “Not with a DeathCut due.”
“Relax, Kristoff,” he replied, climbing into the passenger seat. “She’s not asked us to change our death scene. The DeathCut’s not us.”
“No one ever knows who it’s going to be,” Kristoff said as the technician truck in front of their trailer started its engine.
“How can that be true? How do they work it into their act?”
Grave frowned. “It’s improv?”
“Something like that.”
“Oh, come on. I saw the last one on the banned feeds. You’re telling me that Jessik girl didn’t know about those explosives? That’s way too dangerous.”
“That’s kind of the point.”
“Don’t be daft. They could have really killed her.”
“Five years ago almost to the day,” Kristoff said as the truck ahead pulled away and he starting the trailer’s engine. “Last time we did Metropiline, the tour before you joined.”
“She actually died? It wasn’t just rumour for the punters?”
Kristoff shook his head as they pulled out of their parking bay and followed the truck.
“Well…it was an accident, then,” Grave fumbled. “And why these things should be rehearsed.”
“No one gets to know in advance if their act if getting cut. That’s the point. It keeps everyone on their toes and makes the Metropiline performances the best, as well as the ones with the most bets. The tickets go for thousands.”
“How can she get away with that?”
“Well, think about it. What are we? Drop outs, ex-cons, the homeless and the disfigured…people with no future apart from what she gives us. No on cares what happens to us on her stage. So, let’s just not give her an excuse to make us the next ‘improv’. Deal?”
Grave searched Kirstoff’s face for any sign he was kidding and felt a little cold when he couldn’t.
Grave’s shoulders were even more bunched after hours behind the trailer’s wheel heading down the tunnels to Metropiline. He put the trailer into park when they’d finally arrive at the show ground outside the city and leant forward to peer out the windscreen at the tangle of buildings in the valley. Some towered over others, their twisted architecture distorted further by the scatter of window lights, making them look like iridescent deep sea creatures. Networks of walkways were illuminated in blues and reds like a series of chemical arteries, pumping electric blood around in the dark. He sat and stared for a long moment, the lights smeared on the inside of his eyelids with every blink, wondering what it must be like living in a city that never saw the sun.
It took Kristoff prodding him to make him realise they had company.
The woman’s pale smile widened as she gestured back out the trailer door. “You are summoned.”
“What, again? Hasn’t your mother got better things to do?”
Serene just smiled wider and lead the way out of the trailer. Grave coughed as he clambered down into the thick air.
“Great, isn’t it? Smells like home.”
“Do you know how long we’ll be here?” Grave said as he followed Serene across the industrial lot carved out of the naked rock above the city. The illumination from the troupe’s floodlights made the dust flash in the air and Serene look insubstantial and bloodless.
“It’s not so bad down here. At least you won’t need radiation shots for a while.” She threw him a grin over her shoulder. “The Throne’s parked up over there,” she said, waving between the cranes that were powering up near the tent wagon. “Come find me when she’s done with you. I’ve got some wine in my trailer.”
She melted off into the dark and Grave turned the other way. He wove amongst the techs and performers rushing between trailers, prop vans and set transports, wondering what Helena could possibly want now. The Throne would have been easy enough to find even without the black limousine parked outside. Its own set of red floodlights bathed the silver trailer in a blood-like sheen and puddled scarlet on the pitted ground in every direction. Grave went up to the door and waited whilst a security guard almost as big as the trailer talked into a wrist-comm before opening the door.
As soon as the Throne’s door shut behind him it was like Metropiline, the Cirque and the rest of the world no longer existed. The soundproofing shut out the clamour of the troupe setting up and the filtered air smelt of rosewater rather than oil and dust. Grave shifted from one foot to another on the thick carpet, glancing around the sitting area, wishing he’d thought to run a comb through his hair and change his t-shirt.
“Grave? Is that you? Come through, if you please.”
He swallowed and followed the voice into the next room, paceing through the lush furnishings more suited to a penthouse apartment at the top of a space-scraper than a trailer in a Cirque troupe. Helena was stood at a wide window in her office, watching the cranes lift the bundled miles of black and red polytarb off the tent-wagon. The lumbering of the machinery and the swarming of the tech and stage hands played out in eerie silence, the only audible sound the ice clinking in her glass.
Finally, she turned. “Grave.”
A corner of her pale mouth twitched. Her eyes flickered behind the tinted lenses of her glasses. Grave wondered again how she had come on the same twelve hour drive as him and yet not even one hair had slipped from her white ringlets and tried to decide if she looked more or less creepy without her stage make up.
“This is your first Metropiline show, isn’t it?”
“I always like to give my home crowd a little…more, you know?”
“I think I do.”
Her smile froze a moment and she stood there with the crystal tumbler pressed against her cheek, unblinking gaze fixed on his. Then let out a soft laugh, coming round the desk to lean against it. “You’ve never seen an audience like a Metropiline audience. They’re the most and deserve the most.” Grave opened his mouth but thought of Kirstoff and closed it again. She drained her drink, still watching him, then opened a drawer in her desk and pulled out a silver canister with a vaguely familiar logo on the brushed metal. She placed it on the table top and tapped it with a red fingernail. “A little something extra. For your act.”
“What is it?”
“Oh come now, don’t you recognise it? This is the real deal, direct from the source. Or do you need a dab?”
She nodded, pink eyes glancing at him over the top of her glasses. “Pure. Thought it was add a little zing to your big finale. The people won’t have to just imagine your ‘blessing from the gods’.”
“What exactly are your suggesting, Mistrix?”
“Come, come. I thought you were brighter than this. The smoke effects. Let’s make it more than smoke.”
“You want me to but Bliss, no, pure Bliss, in our smoke canisters?”
“Do you need to sit down? You look pale.”
“Helena,” Grave stammered, saw her fingers tighten on her glass and her eyes harden. “Mistrix, I can’t…I mean…it’s not safe.”
“I didn’t take you for an unadventurous soul, Grave. Especially as you are so intimately acquainted with this substance.”
“I…” His mouth dried up. He swallowed, tried again. “Ok, I used to deal but…Mistrix, you can’t predict how a vaporized dose will affect people.”
“You need to learn to live a little,” she said, eyes never leaving his. “And the residents of the Under City, well…let’s just say we’re used to living it large.”
She tossed the canister to him. It was cold and very heavy. “How much is in here?”
“More than enough for all your little smoke bombs, I’d say. All of them, mind. I will know if you scrimp, my boy.”
“Mistrix,” Grave said, meeting her eye and not letting himself flinch. “This could kill people.”
“If you don’t do it, I will. Then I shall be forced to reflect on your commitment.” She tutted and shook her head. “I really thought you cared about yours and Kristoff’s future more.” Grave knuckles ached as he gripped the canister. Helena glided back to her bar and poured herself another drink. “I think we’re done. Good luck, Grave. Make me proud.”
“You know talking about my mother all the time is a real turn off?” Serene muttered as she sipped her wine.
“Did you not hear what I said?”
Serene shrugged as she put down her glass and picked her whetstone back up. “So the audience gets a little high. Big deal.”
“You don’t understand…you need to start low. Build up a tolerance. I’ve been doing this for years but even I’ve never dabbed the pure stuff and I’ve definitely never breathed it. It could make people flip out…seriously flip out, mind, if not giving them brain bleeds on the spot. And not just the punters.”
“Grave, relax. Why do you think she ordered in all those resp films?”
“What resp films?”
Serene sighed, gesturing out her trailer window. “Check with props. We picked up a whole new stock two cities ago. Clear ones so the punters can’t even see. The troupe won’t be effected.”
“I don’t think you’re getting this. We could kill people.”
“Sounds like fun,” Serene said, her throwing star zinging as she sharpened it.
“Grave,” Serene snapped, pressing a finger to his lips. “This is getting boring now.”
Grave blinked at her, swallowing. “Kristoff told me that that girl, Jessik, died…really died…the last time you were here.”
She shrugged again and held her throwing star up to the lamp, checking the edge. “Our show is dangerous. It’s part of the thrill. It’s what our audience want.”
“I thought it was just hype and marketing.”
“Some of it is. But the most convincing lies are the ones with a grain of truth. Most of the troupe are junkies or convicts. We give them a better life than in Detention Blocks but no one ever said there was no risk. It’s all in the contract. Or were you high when you signed yours?”
Grave chewed his lip, choosing not to remember that day. “Have punters ever died?”
Serene tapped her chin with her star, looking like she was sincerely trying to remember. “No. We’ve lost a limb or two.”
“Honey, look,” she said, putting a hand on his cheek. She smelt like metal. “I’m sorry if you managed to convince yourself it was rumour or fake or whatever…but that’s what we are. The Cirque de Noir. We are the dark. And people love it.”
“You believe that?”
Serene smiled. “I know it. Now give them what they want. Mother knows what she’s doing.”
Grave’s heart thundered against his ribs as he peered out the gap in the curtain. The velvet was getting sweaty under his palm. The stands groaned as they filled with hundreds of people, their excited chatter dense in the air. Some were in costumes, spattered in fake blood or wearing masks or carrying fake weapons. He even saw one young lad, underground-pale with pink eyes and white hair like Helena, trotting along after his father in a home-made replica of Grave’s own gladiator costume. His grip on the curtain tightened.
The clamour of a thousand people settling in seats and rustling refreshment packs hushed as the lights dimmed. After a suitably unnerving pause, a single spotlight lit the centre of the ring and music filled the air. It was the same intro piece they’d played the whole tour but this time it made his stomach lurch.
As the recorded drums reached a crescendo, a figure stepped into the light, at first glance walking on air. A closer look at the way she moved, however, revealed a crosswire under her stilettos. The light flashed off the red metal trim on her top hat and tailcoat. Cheers rang out and the Mistrix lifted an arm in the air with a flourish, white ringlets bouncing as she swept forward in a bow low enough to press her nose against her PVC-clad knees.
Her smile was painted on in crimson and even at this distance he could see her eyes flash behind the tinted glasses. Her artificially amplified voice rang out around the arena, but the words of welcome swam in and out of meaning. He watched her like she was in a dream as she strolled back and forth on the wire, the spotlight igniting micro charges in the air as it followed her so it looked like her body was trailing red fire.
“Shout and sing and scream, ladies and gentlemen. Remember, we aim to please as well as kill.”
Another thunder of applause went round the arena as she bowed again and the spotlight vanished, plunging the ring into blackness. The Fools pushed past him to take up position for their marionette number, black and white stage make up looking ghastly in the backstage UV. By the time the lights came up again, he was alone in the wings with the knowledge that they were one act closer to his own like a stone in his belly.
He watched the performances in a daze until Kristoff came and collared him as Serene’s knife-throwing was winding up. He helped his partner retrieve their baffles, foils and weapons, feeling like he was moving through water. Then they stood waiting for their entrance with Grave trying to control his breathing. Kristoff prodded him in the bicep.
“Keep it together,” he whispered and handed him a resp film.
“Kristoff,” Grave begged, but then the lights had gone again and Serene was pushing past him, sweaty and grinning, with the chorus of cheers and catcalls following her.
“Knock ‘em dead, Grave,” she whispered in his ear and kissed him on the cheek. Her smile looked strange in the darklight.
Grave shook himself as their own intro music started. He felt blood thunder in his temples as he followed Kristoff onto the ring, activating his night vision contact-lenses with a couple of heavy blinks. His hand shook as he slid the resp film over his mouth and nose, feeling the sticky film take and taking a few deep breaths to make sure oxygen was filtering through properly. The clamber frames, trussed up to look like piles of rock and Roman ruins, rose soundlessly out of the stage floor and he let his body take him through the motions of locking the baffles and smoke canisters in place. Then he was clambering up into position just as the music built up and the ripple of the nulgrav activating went through his belly. He felt his weight leave him and tightened his grip on the frame, sweat breaking out all over his skin.
The lights went up and he drew his sword, staring at Kristoff across the set, the murderous glare he’d worn so many times masking the fact that he felt like his heart was trying to smash through his ribs. On screens suspended from the tent frame red numbers flashed up and started counting down. He blinked to try and keep the numbers in focus, forcing himself to think about the routine and how they were doing to do everything before zero.
Kristoff glanced one at the screen then nodded and lifted his sword on cue. Grave kicked off towards him, soaring through the air and raising his own weapon to engage. His speed took Kristoff by surprise a couple of times, needing adjustment from them both to avoid undignified tailspins. Sweat gathered on his skin and as droplets in the air as he launched himself again and again from one bit of the set to another, dodging, swinging, shouting whilst constantly checking Kristoff’s counter-attacks to try and guess what he was going to change next to get all his moves in. Fake blood from the capsules in his palms and wrist guards burst on cue, leaving trails of crimson in the air and the audience gasped and cheered in all the right places.
Finally, the music cut and he was squatting on a tumble of polyfoam masonry, panting and glaring at Kristoff as he glared back at him, grimed in fake blood and dust. They both glanced at the countdown and his spirit climbed up one rung when he saw they were on schedule. The crowd was hushed as the lights dimmed to a deep rose like sunset. He gathered himself for his spring across the void to land the ‘killing’ blow that would win him the favour of the gods, who would then shower the scene with burst of gold confetti and silver smoke. But just as he was about to leap, the music changed. The melody lowered and sharpened just as lights flashed above them and the sound of simulated thunder rocked the air. Grave glanced at Kristoff to see confusion creasing his brow as the fake lightening flashed again.
“Stage? What the hell is happening?” Grave muttered, tapping his earpiece but no one answered. The thunder rolled once more and the countdown on the screens was replaced by the scrolling word MASKS.
The stands were shrouded in shadow but he could hear the shuffling of a thousand people shifting in their seats and could make out them pulling things over their faces when there was a crack and a hiss the air was filled with smoke.
“Stage?” he hissed but was cut off as a minty smell filled his senses and his throat closed. He coughed, swallowed air, felt his head start to spin. He groped at his resp film and froze as his fingers found puncture holes just below his nose. The thunder, lightning and music filled his ears and tangled themselves in his brain. His vision swam and heat swamped him from his skin inwards.
He blinked, trying to focus on Kristoff who was pawing at his own resp film, eyes widening and body wracked with great panicky breaths. Grave tried to call his partner’s name but his croak was drowned in the thunder and the smoke. He closed his eyes and tried to calm but colours flashed on the inside of his eyelids and he heard a voice from far away crying out. He thought it might be his own until he forced his eyes open and saw Kristoff hurtling towards him, sword ready and face twisted with rage and terror.
Grave lifted his sword just in time. The clang of the weapons meeting sent electricity through his muscles and he yelled and fought back as Kristoff rained down blows.
“You did this,” Kritstoff yelled, bloodshot eyes streaming.
“No,” Grave rasped. “Helena – ”
“It’s your fault. You pissed her off. Now she’s poisoned us!”
“No,” Grave tried to cry again, but his throat was dry and his breath wouldn’t catch. The air flashed black and white around them, the smoke choking and clawing, the music bursting in his ears. He scrambled over the clamber frames, kicking through the air even though his couldn’t see where he was going, Kristoff’s blade slicing the air around him. The numbers from the screens melted and swirled at the edges of his vision and his blood was like static in his veins.
He kicked off the set again but Kristoff managed to get a stronger launch, reeling towards Grave as he tried to spin away. Metal seared through his side. His own howl echoed in the caverns of his ears and the blood he left behind in the air blurred in and out of focus until it was all he could see.
Blinking he managed to bring the top of a column into focus and made a grab to swing himself around. His partner came over the top, swiping madly. Grave got his sword between them and it shuddered with Kristoff’s blows. The metal heaved and shivered as he clung there under Kristoff’s assault, terror becoming a solid thing in his bones.
His awareness warped and his grip loosened. He watched his hands lose their grip and drifted backwards, leaving his sword imbedded in the set. Kristoff, face twisted with fury and spattered in gore, lifted his sword with a yell. Grave tried to rope together enough control to grab his sword back but his muscles weren’t answering. Kristoff’s sword came down just as the lights went up and the gravity reactivated. Grave watched Kristoff, the column and the zero flashing on the screens shrink away like they were falling and not him.
He didn’t feel himself land. There was crunching and splitting somewhere far, far away but he watched reality spin away like dust in a cyclone and felt some part of him smile as his spirit soared on the feeling. He couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or shut. He swam amongst agony and confusion like they were waters in a river, gliding past but not penetrating, until, finally, a white face appeared somewhere above him. The only thing he saw clearly were the red lips, like a wound, widening into a grin.
“Now that’s a finale,” Helena said before she and everything else melted away.